National News

Investigators in Freundel Case Seeking Photos

2014-10-17 13:32:58 mshapiro

101714_mikvah_smThe Metropolitan Police Department is asking anyone who used the National Capital Mikvah in Georgetown to submit his or her photo to the department as part of the ongoing investigation into Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was charged Tuesday with voyeurism.

Freundel is accused of making secret video recordings of at least six women in the bathroom and shower area of the National Capital Mikvah as they dressed and undressed during their visit to the mikvah.

At least one D.C. woman who has used the mikvah decided to submit her photograph. Rabbi Freundel “is someone I trusted,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “He is the leader of the Jewish community. When you say his name, everyone knows it.”

The woman, who converted to Judaism through the Conservative Movement, had approached Freundel about receiving an Orthodox conversion. During that conversation, he told her he would take her to the mikvah for a practice dunk, even though she didn’t have the $25 fee with her.

Freundel did come into the shower room and talk to her there. She did not undress in his presence, the woman said.

“At this point, in hindsight, I feel like I was coerced into doing something that was beneficial to him, not me,” she said. “I am totally in dismay. I had so much respect for him,” she said.

Those who believe they were may have been a victim in this case should email Det. George DeSilva at with a picture of their face and contact information, using “mikvah case” as the subject line.

Suzanne Pollack is a reporter at Washington Jewish Week, the Jewish Times’ sister publication.

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Freundel, facing six voyeurism charges, ordered to stay away from synagogue, converts

2014-10-16 15:06:12 mshapiro
Rabbi Barry Freundel, mobbed by reporters as he is leaving D.C. Superior Court after his arraignment on six voyeurism charges on Oct. 15. (Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro)

Rabbi Barry Freundel, mobbed by reporters as he is leaving D.C. Superior Court after his arraignment on six voyeurism charges on Oct. 15. (Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro)

Shuffling into Superior Court Magistrate Judge William Nooter’s courtroom late Wednesday in ankle chains and handcuffs, a black kippah atop his head and a grave, pensive expression on his face, Rabbi Barry Freundel entered a plea of not guilty to six charges of voyeurism.

The rabbi’s wife, Sharon, and a young woman who appeared to be the rabbi’s daughter, sat emotionless in the gallery as they had the entire day waiting for the preliminary arraignment.

In contrast to their apparent stoicism, Emma Shulevitz, 27, of Rockville, one of the alleged victims in the case was outspoken in her reaction to being allegedly recorded undressing before a practice run of her mikvah ceremony required as part of her conversion to Judaism.

“I feel violated,” she said. “The ceremony is supposed to be between a woman and God and not between a woman and her rabbi.”

Freundel, who had served as head rabbi at the Modern Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown and is currently suspended without pay, is accused of making secret video recordings of women in the bathroom and shower area of the National Capital Mikvah, which is separated from the main synagogue by a courtyard. Although a separate legal entity for tax and legal purposes, the mikvah is affiliated with the synagogue.

According to a report by investigators with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) obtained by Washington Jewish Week, police were notified of the surreptitious recording device by an individual associated with the mikvah on Oct. 12, who also reported witnessing Freundel plugging in and operating the recording device secreted in a Dream Machine digital clock radio while she was setting up the mikvah’s showers. Freundel said that he was using it “for ventilation of the shower area.”

Police obtained a search warrant for the recording device on the very next day and reviewed numerous sets of recordings stored on the camera’s memory card.

The first three recordings on the camera’s memory card, timestamped June 2, capture three women separately “partially undressing” or changing clothes in view of the camera. The second occasion, timestamped Sept. 13, the camera recorded the face and voice of Freundel appearing to adjust the camera’s display time and “positioning it on the counter to face the shower stall area.” Six more recordings on the same day included four women “undressed or changing clothes” before entering the shower and drying off after.

A third set of videos dated Oct. 6, shows the rabbi again positioning the camera, followed by a video of when the camera was discovered. Because the camera was discovered on Oct. 12, at least on this day, the camera’s timestamp was behind by six days.

According to the criminal complaint obtained by WJW, none of the women depicted on the videos had knowledge of the recordings or gave consent for them. Also, according to the complaint, an operating manual for the recording device was found in the rabbi’s bedroom and was seized as evidence. A preliminary examination of a computer seized from Freundel’s residence at the time of his arrest contained files downloaded from the camera’s memory card.

Freundel’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, a partner with the D.C. law firm of Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke LLP, entered the rabbi’s not guilty plea on his client’s behalf, requested pre-trial discovery and further asked that Freundel be released on his own recognizance (without a monetary bond) pending trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Marcus-Kurn argued that Freundel is a flight risk, asked the court to order Freundel not to leave the country and to outfit Freundel with an ankle-strapped GPS tracking device. The prosecutor further asked the judge to order that Freundel stay away from women whose conversions he supervised and any others associated with the mikvah, Kesher Israel or the mikvah building.

Harris responded by saying that although the defense accepts the “stay away” orders and the travel restriction, he did not view the electronic monitoring as necessary, as he believes the rabbi will appear at future court dates.

“With all due respect, your honor,” said Harris, “I’ve seen this court hear worse offenders and flight risks today than Freundel” without ordering electronic monitoring. “I believe the defendant will obey court orders and I do not believe” the taxpayer expense is necessary.

The back and forth continued as the prosecution describe why it believes the rabbi is a flight risk.

As someone who was responsible for conversions and upholding [Jewish] laws, “the defendant has proven that he has no respect for those laws” by recording women on multiple occasions over a period of time, said Marcus-Kurn. “[The defendant] has violated laws up into heaven and down — and that’s according to the defendant’s laws.”

Marcus-Kurn also added that although so far none of the evidence indicates violence or felonies, the investigation is still in its early stages.

“The GPS monitor is only asked for by the government because of the visibility [of the case] and not the charges,” responded Harris. “Why that makes him a flight risk, I don’t know.”

The magistrate sided with the defense on the monitoring issue in light of Freundel’s lack of a prior criminal record. Yet, he ordered Freundel to report in person to pretrial services (probation) every week before the trial begins. He also granted the government’s request to hold on to Freundel’s passport.

Freundel left the courthouse with his wife and the young woman in a chauffeured SUV, declining to answer questions from a mob of reporters, so numerous that they broke the escalator leading out of the courthouse.

Freundel is scheduled to reappear in D.C. Superior Court at 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 12 for a status hearing.

Read the latest update.

Dmitriy Shapiro is political reporter at Washington Jewish Week, the Jewish Times’ sister publication.

Rabbi Barry Freundel, mobbed by reporters as he is leaving D.C. Superior Court after his arraignment on six voyeurism charges on Oct. 15. (Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro)
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Prominent Rabbi, Towson Professor Arrested

2014-10-16 12:29:23 ebrown
Rabbi Barry Freundel has been suspended without pay. (File photo)

Rabbi Barry Freundel has been suspended without pay. (File photo)

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in the 3000 block of O Street N.W. by Washington D.C. Metro Police. Freundel, 62, was charged with voyeurism, according to Officer Hugh Carew, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department.

Freundel, who was suspended without pay from the position he has held since 1989, was to have appeared in Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Wednesday. He was also suspended from Towson University, where he was a faculty member in the department of philosophy and religious studies.

A member of Kesher Israel with intimate knowledge of the case against Freundel confirmed that the investigation centers around a camera or cameras placed in the National Capital Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath located in a synagogue-owned building adjoining the congregation. The mikvah and the synagogue are separate legal entities, according to tax documents.

According to the D.C. criminal code, the crime of voyeurism exists when a person unlawfully maintains a peephole, mirror or any electronic device for the purpose of secretly or surreptitiously observing an individual who is: using a bathroom, totally or partially undressed or changing, or engaged in sexual activity, without the consent of that individual and in an area where a person would expect privacy.

Voyeurism is graded as a misdemeanor under most circumstances, but the charge can be upgraded to a felony if the defendant distributes the spied-upon material.

As a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty for voyeurism is imprisonment of no more than one year or a $2,500 fine or both. Graded as a felony, the charge carries a maximum penalty of not more than five years in prison and a fine of up to $12,500.

While Freundel has been charged with voyeurism, his mere arrest is not conclusive of his guilt.

To be lawful, an arrest must be supported by probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The government’s burden of proof to convict Freundel at trial, as with any criminal defendant, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a much higher standard.

“This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the synagogue’s board of directors said in a statement shortly after news of the charges broke. “At this challenging time, we draw strength from our faith, our tradition, and our fellow congregants.”

The statement acknowledged that the board was aware of allegations against Freundel prior to his arrest.

“Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the board of directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials,” said the statement, which went on to emphasize that the synagogue reamins open “as a place of learning, prayer and community.” “Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”

The synagogue has retained the Gibson Dunn law firm, the same firm hired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the fallout over closures on the George Washington Bridge that were said to be politically motivated. As of press time, it was not known who represents Freundel.

Tuesday morning, uniformed police and plainclothes officers were seen leading away in handcuffs a man whom neighbors said was Freundel, according to Washingtonian magazine. Police were later seen removing computers and other items, according to that report.

Rabbi Herzl Kranz of the Silver Spring Jewish Center said he was saddened to hear the news.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for all Jews as well,” the rabbi said. He quickly added all the facts must be known before judging his fellow Orthodox rabbi.

Freundel received his ordination from Yeshiva University. He has served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a consultant to an ethics review board at the National Institutes of Health. He heads the conversion committee at the Rabbinical Council of America and is author of “Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity” and “Why We Pray What We Pray.”

In a Sept. 18 article in Washington Jewish Week about the state of Orthodox Judaism, Freundel is quoted about the leading reasons for divorce. “The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place, and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this, and it creates terrible problems,” said Freundel. “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages.

“It’s two keystrokes away,” he continued. “You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there. I have not counseled a couple in any level of relationship in the last five years where pornography hasn’t been an issue.”

Read our update on this story here.

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Referendum Stalemate

2014-10-16 10:30:35 ebrown
Residents of Ramapo vote during a special election in September 2014. (Melissa Gerr)

Residents of Ramapo vote during a special election in September 2014. (Melissa Gerr)

All electronic and paper ballots from a Sept. 30 referendum vote in Ramapo, N.Y., were impounded and then ultimately nullified last week by the state’s Supreme Court on allegations of election fraud. Town lawyer Michael Klein has appealed the ruling.

The referendum, which would have reconfigured voting districts from citywide to a ward system and increase the town’s board from four to six members, pitted elements of the area’s large Jewish community against each other and against other residents.

Two of Ramapo’s several villages are predominantly Chasidic or haredi Orthodox. Critics of the referendum said the redistricting would weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole. Proponents of the ballot measure said it would level the playing field of the diverse town, which is home to large Latino and Haitian communities.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey’s court order was directed at town clerk Christian Sampson and the lack of clear communication by the local election board regarding absentee vote counts and the eligibility of nonregistered voters to cast a ballot through the use of an affidavit of residency.

“They had 400 people who signed affidavits [to vote] at the Town Hall polling place,” said Bob Rhodes, chairman of activist group Preserve Ramapo and a longtime Jewish resident of the town. “We’ve also heard people were coming in and not even filling out the affidavit [when a poll site ran out of the forms]. They were just voting. No I.D., nothing.”

Soon after Garvey’s ruling calling for a new election, Klein appealed the decision. Klein did not respond to request for comment, but Robert Romanowski, who spent two years petitioning to have the referendum vote and also filed the lawsuit on election day alleging election fraud, said the town contended in its Notice of Appeal that Garvey lacked the jurisdiction needed to invalidate the special election, the lawsuit was improperly filed prior to the counting of ballots, and the charges leveled in the suit lacked merit.

“They’ve put a stay on the election. … They want to sit on it indefinitely to perfect their appeal,” Rhodes said of the town. “We’re going to ask the judge to expedite the appeal, to force them to file their papers.

“On top of a blatantly fraudulent election that they created,” he added, “they’re doing everything possible to keep it in the courts forever.”

For her part, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, a Democrat whose district includes Ramapo, said that election integrity should be the primary concern.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the town moved to appeal,” she said. “The judge made her decision. … A democratic election works to make sure the results are reliable, and that is a concern here. We have to restore voter confidence so we need to move forward with the judge’s ruling.”

Jaffee, who is Jewish and lives in the predominately Jewish village of Suffern, is one of several people working to prevent election confusion in Ramapo from happening again. In question is the difference, according to state law, between a special election and a general one and how that affects the use of absentee ballots, affidavits and poll watchers. Some observers pointed to all three issues as unclear in the Sept. 30 special election, and many attributed the confusion to miscommunication by election officials.

“We’ve been discussing legislation that would apply general election laws to all municipalities with populations over a certain size, perhaps 25,000,” Jaffee said of efforts on the state level. “We feel this would give more confidence to the communities regarding how elections can move forward.”

Town zoning is a hotly contested issue in Ramapo, and the recent referendum outcome would have affected zoning processes. Critics blame Orthodox developers for obtaining questionable zoning permits that allow large multi-unit structures to be built on sites originally zoned for single units and say town resources cannot sustain that level of growth.

Rhodes said of the Preserve Ramapo group, “We are not opposed to building. We are opposed to irresponsible building.”

While the court case proceeds, attention has turned to an anti-ward group with direct ties to the town government that raised about $130,000, most of it from developers, in an effort to defeat the referendum. An email reportedly sent from the personal account of Mona Montal, the town’s director of purchasing and a member of the Orthodox community in Suffern, appears to solicit money to pay for anti-referendum materials.

“We really really (sic) need your help,” the email reads, according to a copy provided to the JT by Preserve Ramapo member Mike Castelluccio. “As I mentioned most of the developers are contributing between $10,000 and $20,000 — some consultants have given 5K.”

Rhodes and Preserve Ramapo would like to see the electronic ballots counted from the original vote or at least to conduct a repeat election in a timely manner with proper regulations in place.

“We don’t want to take over the town or do the Chasidim in, we just want a responsible board, one that will create a decent place to live for the community,” said Rhodes. “I hate to say these things … this is such a terrible embarrassment to the entire Jewish community.”

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A Matter of Concern

2014-10-09 12:55:00 ebrown
The Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

The Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

Hundreds of members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last weed expressing concern over Iran’s “refusal to fully cooperate” with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s continuing investigation into Iran’s dismantlement of its nuclear program as required by the  P5+1 framework agreement.

The letter, signed by 352 members of the House of Representatives, included House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“We believe that Iran’s willingness to fully reveal all aspects of its nuclear program is a fundamental test of Iran’s intention to uphold a comprehensive agreement,” Royce and Engel, who authored the letter, wrote. “As you [Kerry] wrote in the Washington Post earlier this summer, if Iran’s nuclear program is truly peaceful, ‘it’s not a hard proposition to prove.’ The only reasonable conclusion for its stonewalling of international investigators is that Tehran does indeed have much to hide.”

The letter stated that any agreement that does not fully hold the Iranian regime accountable for meeting IAEA deadlines and inquiries would set a “dangerous precedent” and that Iran should not be allowed to declare parts of its nuclear infrastructure off limits to IAEA inspections. Such obstruction would frustrate the monitors’ ability to make “accurate predictions of the period of time needed by Iran to assemble a [nuclear] weapon and [to make an] assessment of Iran’s compliance.

“We would like to achieve a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis,” continued the letter. “As negotiations resume, we urge you to carefully monitor Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA’s inquiry.”

The IAEA, an agency of the U.N., reported last month that Iran missed a deadline in February to which it had agreed as part of a framework agreement with the P5+1. That agreement led the United States to lift some of its economic sanctions against Iran and to contemplate providing further relief when and if a final deal is reached.

According to Reuters in a story last week, the IAEA reported that Iran had failed to answer questions about its research into explosive testing and neutron calculations — essential to the production of nuclear weapons — by the Aug. 25 deadline.

Meeting with President Barack Obama last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that despite the numerous regional threats to Israel, including Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS, Iran remains Israel’s greatest danger.

“Even more critical is our shared goal of preventing Iran from becoming a military nuclear power,” said Netanyahu. “As you know, Mr. President, Iran seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions that you’ve worked so hard to put in place, and leave it as a threshold nuclear power.  I fervently hope that under your leadership that would not happen.”

The P5+1 negotiations recently entered their final phase, beginning with trilateral meetings between Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. The deadline for a final agreement in the negotiations is scheduled for Nov. 24.

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